Six companies control 90% of what you read. Why are they lying?
In a recent Twitter survey (https://bit.ly/3jP0h8l) I conducted,
nearly 90% of people rated their trust in mainstream media as
either very low or low. And is it any surprise? Ever-mounting
media consolidation has narrowed the perspectives the public
is privy to, ownership and funding of these corporations are
riddled with conflicts of interest, crucial stories keep suspiciously
getting buried and big tech companies are outright censoring and
demonetizing independent outlets trying to break through the noise.
The media is supposed to function as a power check - and a means
of arming us with vital information for shaping the society we want
to live in. Its never been a more important industry. And its never
been more at risk. In this series, Ill tackle each factor
threatening the medias ability to serve our democracy - with
input from journalists, media critics, professors and other experts.
We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth
concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cant have both. -
Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis
On a crisp November day in 2014, as I (https://bit.ly/3OkB4AQ)
hustled through Bostons Downtown Crossing at rush hour, I got
a call that would change the course of my career: I was offered my
first full-time journalism job, as a tech and startups reporter for
a local online outlet called BostInno.
When I look back on that moment and recall the dizzying rush of
excitement that set in, I see an idealistic young woman who has
yet to understand the way the media machine really works. I wish
I could somehow temper her expectations. I wish I could protect
her from the crushing disappointment that comes with realizing this
industry shes chosen isnt what she naively thinks it is.
Not too long before I was hired, BostInno had been acquired by
American City Business Journals (https://bit.ly/3jNjAz1), the largest
publisher of metropolitan business newsweeklies in the U.S. In my
early conversations with colleagues, it was apparent they were still
adjusting to post-acquisition life.
Sure, there were perks that came with being acquired - but the
pressure to hit lofty traffic goals meant writers now had to
prioritize certain clickbaity stories over others. Moreover, I
distinctly remember a fixation on quantity.
Writers were expected to churn out at least three or four stories
a day in an effort to reach as wide an audience as possible, which
frustratingly, meant we often didnt have time to cover complex
topics in the depth required. Our experience, as it turns out, is not
exactly a unique one.
In a recent survey I conducted, 60% of journalists said theyd
worked for a publication that got bought by a larger company
while they were there - and 40% of that group admitted to
witnessing negative changes in their job expectations or work
environment after the acquisition.
If you examine the history of countless media mergers and
acquisitions over the last several decades, youll come to an
unsettling discovery: local, independent outlets are dying out in
droves. The result? The vast majority of the news you digest is
tailored to serve the interests of corporations and their leaders,
rather than citizens.
The Great Media Consolidation continues (https://bit.ly/3OkWkX2):
NYT buys The Athletic
BuzzFeed buys Complex
VOX buys GroupNine
Axel Springer buys Politico
Dot Dash buys Meredith
Minute Media buys Players Tribune
It may go without saying, but the media plays an almost nauseatingly
prominent role in our everyday lives, especially here in the
United States. In fact, Americans spend an average of 12 and a half
hours per day consuming news (https://bit.ly/3K6f9tT) via the
television, Internet, newspapers, magazines and radio.
The media molds our society in a myriad of ways. It tells us which
world events deserve our attention. It has the power to affect what
we buy. In shaping our opinions on everything from immigration,
healthcare, education and the environment to individual political
candidates, it can also have significant sway when it comes to
Studies have shown that media coverage sometimes has a strong impact
(https://bit.ly/3uRzpe2) on criminal court decisions, particularly for
violent crimes. And by influencing consumers and investors, our
current 24-hour real-time news cycle can impact our economic
climate, driving the market values of certain industries and
companies (this is known as the CNN effect https://bit.ly/3OdIGF0).
But have you ever noticed that so much of what youre reading, seeing
and hearing has started to sound - well, exactly the same? Youre not
imagining things. Theres even a name for this phenomenon: the
illusion of choice. (https://bit.ly/37q72Le) Were presented with
what feels like an endless array of options for where to get our news
But have you ever noticed that so much of what youre reading,
seeing and hearing has started to sound - well, exactly the same?
Youre not imagining things. Theres even a name for this phenomenon:
the illusion of choice. Were presented with what feels like an
endless array of options for where to get our news.
But in reality, the information from most of those sources trickles
down from the same few conglomerates. Year after year, economic
power has become increasingly concentrated across numerous
industries - including tech, healthcare, banking, airlines and
In fact, mergers reached (https://bit.ly/3JUyKNs) a record high of
$5.8 trillion in 2021. If you ever took Economics 101, youre
probably well aware that monopolies are great for the providers
and bad for consumers - by eliminating competition, they give
corporations in control no incentive to improve, innovate, or
otherwise meet our needs, desires, and expectations.
So, how did we get here? During the 1940s, the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) adopted a number of rules to limit ownership
(https://bit.ly/3OmrQDW) of multiple local radio stations and
television stations, as well as multiple national broadcast networks.
Then in the 70s, the FCC banned one company from owning both
(https://bit.ly/38T7WQF) a newspaper and TV or radio station in
the same market. But during the 80s, major deregulatory moves
(https://bit.ly/38NzSW7) made by Congress and the FCC under
then-president Ronald Reagans administration increased
(https://bit.ly/3xy4zcb) the number of TV stations any single entity
could own, triggering a wave of media mergers.
The real kiss of death to local news happened in 1996 when President
Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act
(https://bit.ly/3OeaLMB), which allowed large corporations already
dominating the media market to further expand their control via
acquisitions and mergers.
Only 3% (https://bit.ly/36suvuQ) of Congress voted against this bill,
including then-House of Representatives member Bernie Sanders.
In the years following, more and more small outlets and stations
either got gobbled up by the big guys or outright failed because
they simply couldnt compete with them.
Then, in 2017, the FCC reversed (https://nyti.ms/37sZV4L)
a regulation that opened the floodgates on consolidation even
further. That regulation had prevented one company from owning
multiple television stations in markets that didnt have at least
eight independent stations and prevented one company from owning
both a newspaper and broadcast station or TV and radio station in
the same market.
Finally, in 2021, the Supreme Court (https://reut.rs/3vuoFBp)
overturned an appeals ruling asking the FCC to study the potential
impact on female and minority ownership in the media industry
before loosening restrictions on ownership. At the time, Justice
Brett Kavanaugh - who wrote the ruling - claimed that not only
was there zero evidence that relaxing these rules would cause any
harm, but that consolidation could benefit consumers
As for the consequences of all this deregulation - whereas 50
companies (https://bit.ly/3vo5MAl) dominated the media landscape
in 1983, that dwindled to nine companies by the 1990s. It got
worse from there.
Today, just six conglomerates (https://bit.ly/3JTDCCj) - Comcast,
Disney, AT&T, Sony, Fox and Paramount Global (formerly known
as ViacomCBS) - control 90% of what you watch, read, or listen
to. To put this into perspective: that means about 232 media
(https://bit.ly/3jQujZq) executives have the power to decide what
information 277 million Americans are able to access. In 2021, the
big six banked a total of more than $478 billion in revenue.
Thats more than both Finlands and Ukraines GDP combined.
The issue extends to print media and radio giants, too: iHeartMedia
owns 863 radio stations nationwide (https://bit.ly/37wYSAC), while
Gannett owns more than 100 daily U.S. newspapers and nearly 1000
As the pool (https://bit.ly/37t5kbR) controlling the media keeps
shrinking, so does the breadth of the information reported. Hence
why todays thousands of news outlets often churn out embarrassingly
One glaring issue with these sweeping regulatory changes is that they
passed with little publicity, meaning citizens had little to no
opportunity to push back. In fact, a 2003 Pew Research study found
that a whopping 72% of Americans heard absolutely nothing at all
about changing rules (https://pewrsr.ch/37sFoNI) for media
ownership. But when asked how they felt about relaxing the rules
for how many media outlets corporations can own, far more
Americans said they thought it would have a negative impact than
a positive one.
According to Jeff Cohen, founder of Fairness and Accuracy in
Reporting (FAIR) and RootsAction and author (https://bit.ly/3La1hQF)
of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media,
the Telecommunications Act progressed largely under the radar.
The public didnt vote on it, or know about it, he told me in an
interview. Conglomeration and the shrinkage of media diversity
happened because of backroom legislation and rule-making, out of
sight of the public.
In fact, when a consumer group tried to buy ad space on CNN to
criticize the Telecommunications Bill, Cohen says CNN wouldnt sell
them the time. Its not all that surprising when you consider how
powerful Big Media lobbyists are: An OpenSecrets report shows
that NCTA The Internet & Television Association (which represents
more than 90% of the U.S. cable market) spent more than $14
million trying to influence government policy in 2021, while Comcast
shelled out $13.38 million, putting them both in the top 15 spenders
for lobbying (https://bit.ly/3vrPHcP).
Not only were Americans kept mostly in the dark about these
regulatory moves, but information about their implications may have
been intentionally hidden. In 2006, former FCC attorney Adam
Candeub claimed the FCC allegedly buried a federal study
(https://bit.ly/380CUpv) proving more concentration of media
ownership would hurt local news coverage.
Senior managers ordered staff to destroy every last piece of the
report, according to Candeub. Still, other research has since
revealed the same worrisome findings: a 2019 study showed that
stations newly acquired by Sinclair increased their focus on national
politics by around (https://stanford.io/3OjRDwu) 25% - at the
expense of covering local politics.
Nowadays, there are entire (https://bit.ly/37pZ98s) cities and towns
across the country with no local coverage. According to a 2018 study,
more than 2,000 U.S. counties (63.6%) have no daily newspaper
(https://bit.ly/3OneXK0), while 1,449 counties (46%) only have
one. Meanwhile, 171 counties - totaling 3.2 million residents - have
zero newspapers whatsoever.
These areas are known as news deserts, (https://bit.ly/3jU9JHm)
and studies have shown they have fewer candidates running for mayor
(https://bit.ly/3JU4qTd), lower voter turnout and more government
corruption. When citizens are left with a colossal information gap,
theyre forced to turn to social media to get their news.
One of the media giants responsible (https://bit.ly/37ZEmse) for this
trend is Sinclair Broadcast Group, which now owns or operates 185
television stations across 620 channels in 86 U.S. markets. In the
above compilation video, the anchors parroting the same exact
script about the dangers of fake news all worked for Sinclair-owned
While expressing concerns about the negative effects of media
consolidation in a 2017 interview with Democracy Now!
(https://bit.ly/3vtZUp4), former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps
called Sinclair the most dangerous company out there that people
have never heard of due not only to the scope of its control but
also its well-known ideological agenda.
In his book The New Media Monopoly, (https://bit.ly/3uStF3S)
the late author Ben Bagdikian asserts that todays big six have
amassed more communications power than was ever wielded by
any dictatorship in history. Worse yet, he notes that close-knit
hierarchies like these find ways to cooperate to keep expanding
They jointly invest in the same ventures, and they even go through
motions that, in effect, lend each other money and swap properties
when it is mutually advantageous, Bagdikian writes.
Im old enough to remember when those who warned against the
dangers of media consolidation were ridiculed as alarmists. Score
one for the alarmists. (https://bit.ly/3Eqr7wT)